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Supreme Court Decision may Enhance Fairness in Criminal Cases Involving Defendants with Serious Mental Illnesses

July 3, 2008

On June 19, 2008, the Supreme Court of the U.S. issued a decision in which it held that a higher standard must be used to determine the competence of defendants to represent themselves in criminal cases than to determine the competence of defendants to stand trial.  The decision in Indiana v. Edwards can be found here Although the implications of the decision are somewhat limited, NAMI believes that it represents a positive step towards the goal of ensuring greater fairness in criminal cases in which the mental illness of the defendant is at issue.   

Facts of the case:

In July, 1999, Ahmad Edwards was discovered trying to steal a pair of shoes from an Indiana department store.  After being discovered, he fired a gun at a store security officer and wounded a bystander.  He was charged with attempted murder, battery with a deadly weapon, criminal recklessness and theft.  He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and subsequently found incompetent to stand trial and was committed to a state psychiatric hospital for further evaluation and treatment.  His competency and mental status fluctuated over the course of five years and he was not found competent to proceed to trial until July, 2004. 

In June, 2005, Edwards stood trial.  He asked to represent himself but the trial court rejected this request and the jury found him guilty of criminal recklessness and theft but failed to reach a verdict on the charges of attempted murder and battery.  The State decided to retry him on the attempted murder and battery charges and he was retried in December, 2005.  The trial court again found that he was competent to stand trial but not competent to represent himself.  Despite being represented by counsel at his retrial, the jury convicted him on both counts. 

Edwards appealed, arguing that he had been wrongfully deprived of his constitutional right to represent himself.  The case eventually reached the Supreme Court, which addressed the legal question of whether the standard for allowing defendants to represent themselves at trial should be higher than the standard for finding defendants competent to stand trial. 

The Court’s decision:

In the Edwards decision, the Supreme Court held that defendants determined competent to stand trial are not necessarily competent to represent themselves at trial.  Historically, courts have applied an extremely low standard for finding defendants competent to stand trial, requiring simply that they understand the nature of the charges against them and are capable of consulting with their attorneys with "a reasonable degree of rational understanding." 

According to the Edwards decision, a higher degree of competence is required to engage in self-representation at trial, including "organization of defense, making motions, arguing points of law, … questioning witnesses and addressing the court and jury." 

The Court specifically cited two factors in reaching its decision.  First, the Court emphasized the fluctuating nature and severity of mental illnesses, which can significantly interfere with the ability of a defendant to mount an effective legal defense over a period of time.   

Second, the Court expressed concern that allowing defendants with questionable capacity to represent themselves at trial does not ultimately protect the civil rights of those individuals but rather "threatens an improper conviction or sentence" and "undercuts the most basic of the Constitutions criminal law objectives, providing a fair trial."

The Supreme Court stopped short of defining the criteria that trial courts should use in determining the competency of defendants to represent themselves at trial, stating that trial court judges are better able to make those determinations, taking into consideration "the individualized circumstances of a particular defendant."

The significance of the decision:

The Court’s decision will help ensure more fairness in cases in which defendants with severe mental illnesses seek to waive a defense or represent themselves at trial.  It is not uncommon for defendants experiencing delusions, hallucinations or other symptoms of a severe mental illness to fire their attorneys and argue that they should be allowed to represent themselves.  When this occurs, the ability to present relevant information to the judge or jury and thus ensure a fair trial may be seriously compromised.  

NAMI has been particularly concerned in recent years about criminal defendants being allowed to represent themselves at trial despite evidence of delusions and other symptoms of psychosis.  The right to waive counsel and represent oneself at trial is a fundamental constitutional right if the decision is made knowingly and rationally.  However, in cases when an individual is experiencing symptoms of psychosis, this decision may not be knowing and rational.      

A recent and highly publicized case illustrates the wisdom of the Supreme Court’s decision.  Scott Panetti was allowed to fire his attorneys and represent himself at trial despite a long history and active symptoms of schizophrenia.  He fired his attorneys because they wanted to assert an insanity defense which would have required entering evidence of his mental illness into the record.  At trial, Panetti sought subpoenas on John F. Kennedy and Jesus Christ.  He wore a cowboy outfit, sang cowboy songs, spoke in incoherent sentences, and asked irrational questions of witnesses.  He was convicted and sentenced to death.  Under the new standard articulated by the Supreme Court in Indiana v. Edwards, it is unlikely that a defendant such as Panetti would have been permitted to represent himself.    

Many have argued that the standard used for determining competency to stand trial is too low and does not reflect current understanding of serious mental illnesses and their potential impact on rationality and cognition.  However, the decision in this case will not impact on these determinations.  Re-consideration of the standards used for evaluating competency to stand trial will have to wait for another day.   

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